What is student engagement?
Student engagement is defined as students’ involvement in activities and conditions that are linked with high-quality learning. A key assumption is that learning outcomes are influenced by how an individual participates in educationally purposeful activities. While students are seen to be responsible for constructing their own knowledge, learning is also seen to depend on institutions and staff generating conditions that stimulate student involvement. (ACER, 2017).
Why is engagement important?
When higher education institutions understand the nature of student engagement and work towards influencing it for the better, the impact on outcomes for students and learning processes is huge (ACER, 2017).
Teaching staff are at the centre of these efforts because of ‘the role teaching staff play in inspiring, challenging and engaging students’ (Richardson, 2011).
Summary scales for measuring student engagement
The Australasian 2010 Postgraduate Survey of Student Engagement (POSSE) uses six scales to measure student engagement (Edwards, 2011).
The extent to which expectations and assessments challenge students to learn
So how best to design postgraduate courses and units to ensure academic challenge?
Biggs and Tang (2011) suggest that a constructively aligned unit encourages students to use deeper learning approaches and leads to a learning environment in which students will be challenged to learn (Biggs & Tang, 2011). Deeper learning approaches require students to engage with learning tasks ‘appropriately and meaningfully’, which means matching the task with the right cognitive activities to complete it and experiencing positive feelings of being challenged as a result (Biggs & Tang, 2011).
Constructive alignment - where the assessments, unit content and carefully crafted learning activities are in alignment with achieving the unit’s intended learning outcomes
Implied in this aim of achieving deeper learning is the importance of task (and unit design). For the task to be sufficiently challenging academically, the task must require the right level of thinking, as indicated by the learning actions within Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. It is safe to assume that postgraduate learning and teaching would require a greater use of higher order thinking skills, achieved by designing learning that fits with the higher levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.
When we consider learning design even more broadly, at the course level, it is important to design curriculum at the appropriate AQF level, which in the case of postgraduate coursework, is generally levels 8 & 9 (Hamilton, Thomas, Carson & Ellison, 2014).
Pedagogies that encourage deep learning
There are a number of pedagogical strategies which can encourage deeper learning approaches and thereby enhancing postgraduate students’ feelings and perceptions of being academically challenged and engaged in their studies.
Four of these high impact pedagogical strategies that are well supported in the literature as being positively correlated with engagement are listed (Evans, Muijs & Tomlinson, 2015):
Problem based learning and project based learning
Flipped Classroom approaches
Authentic learning experiences
Given that deeper learning requires more active approaches to learning (Biggs and Tang, 2011), there is considerable overlap between Measure 1 - Academic Challenge and Measure 2 - Active Learning. So for additional resources and strategies, please refer to the Active Learning section.
Students’ efforts to actively construct knowledge
Research identifies a link between the use of active learning strategies in teaching and learning and improved student learning outcomes (Freeman et al, 2014). The reason active learning works is because it promotes a deep learning approach and discourages a surface approach. If students are actively working towards building their knowledge and skills, then they are more likely to be engaged with their course or unit. As Biggs and Tang (1999, p. 68) wrote, “it’s what the student does that is important”.
Explore the following resources for inspiration on how to integrate active learning strategies in your postgraduate units.
- Online Teaching Activity Index (University of Illinois, 2015).
- Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository - Interaction (University of Central Florida, 2017)
Note: While some of the strategies presented in these repositories target online learning, many of them can be adapted for face-to-face teaching situations.
The Teaching Online program is an online, self-paced course for academics which places a strong emphasis on the importance of active learning strategies and interactivity, and provides educators with a foundation in online pedagogy, online course design, online teaching, and technologies used to teach online. While the whole program of four modules is of benefit, the following two modules focus on facilitating active and engaging learning experiences:
- Module 2: Mastering online pedagogy
- Module 4: Being a successful online teacher.
The level and nature of students’ contact and interaction with teaching staff
Even allowing for differences between disciplines, typically in Australia the dominant pedagogies (lectures or large group instruction) are not conducive to fostering high quality staff student interactions (Richardson, 2011).
This is concerning when research suggests that students are more engaged with their studies when they have ‘sustained, significant and meaningful contact’ with teaching staff (Richardson, 2011).
Higher quality staff student interactions increase the likelihood that students are actively participating in their learning, which is more likely to lead to positive educational outcomes (Richardson, 2011; Edwards, 2011).
The ACER Engagement research found, “…high levels of student-staff interactions have positive effects on learning, motivation, persistence – on engagement” (ACER, n.d.).
During scheduled contact times
Within scheduled class time (online or face-to-face), much can be done to increase the amount of staff to student and student to student interaction by designing units that use active learning strategies to create more collaborative learning experiences, rather than the traditional pedagogies such as lectures, which tend to stymie interaction. Refer to the Active Learning tab.
Educators should also consider additional ways they can offer students feedback and comment on their studies, particularly regarding their assessments (Edwards, 2011). Refer to the page on Feedback strategies.
Outside of scheduled contact times
Staff student interactions outside of class time may be either formal (e.g. scheduled consultations about assessment tasks) or informal.
Be conscious that the informal opportunities you provide match with the needs of your student cohort. If you have a mixed cohort of part-time/full-time, on-campus/off-campus students, make sure there are opportunities for all students to engage with. It is common for off-campus students to feel isolated.
Informal interactions are just as important and can even become a large part of the postgraduate student experience (ACER, “Enhancing interactions between students and staff”, n.d.).
Options that involve attendance in person:
Some of the ways educators can foster informal interactions with students include:
- Having coffee every now and again with a group of students
- Inviting students to lunch with a visiting scholar
- Running a revision session
- Inviting students to a discipline-relevant event
- Inviting students to a networking event.
(Source: ACER, n.d.)
Options that can be mediated online:
Some ideas for formal or informal interactions, mediated by technology, when your students are off campus are listed below:
Schedule weekly drop-in sessions at flexible times.
Students turn up for all or part of the session and pose questions or initiate discussions related to their learning.
Refer to the ACU case study - Using LEO Live Classroom to increase staff and student interaction - Dr Val Goodwin.
LEO Live Classroom (Adobe Connect).
Weekly live chat.
Students participate in a synchronous (real time) chat about that week’s themes and learning.
Twitter or other social media tool
Asynchronous (not in real time) discussions.
Students discuss the week’s themes and learning. For postgraduate students you can even suggest they take turns in moderating the discussion.
Individual phone/video chat (for small cohorts)
|LEO Live Classroom (Adobe Connect), SkypeForBusiness, phone|
Students’ participation in broadening educational activities
As part of their course, students can participate in a number of activities designed to enrich their educational experience.
Teachers can also make a difference well beyond the classroom – and the research shows that this is where many of their most formative contributions can be made. (ACER, n.d.). Indeed, some universities in both the UK and the US assert that “if you can engage students outside of the curriculum then they will also be more engaged inside the curriculum” (Gibbs, 2014).
Students’ participation in broadening educational activities
There are a number of different ways outside the classroom that educators can create, or raise awareness about, educational activities that both support the curriculum and enhance postgraduate student engagement.
Some strategies for outside the classroom include:
- Encouraging students to attend external seminars, symposia or public lectures on discipline related topics
- Offering field trips – in person or virtual
- Establishing a voluntary seminar program for students; they get useful feedback that isn’t necessarily linked to assessments (Source: ACER)
- Sharing industry-related opportunities
Students as contributors
Viewing students as valuable and competent contributors outside of their coursework can have a significant impact upon their student experience (ACER, n.d.).
Some strategies include having students:
- Take guided responsibility for literature searches and literature reviews
- Assist in editorial activities related to academic journals
- Assist with translation of documents related to academic research
- Participate in other activities related to research and publishing including abstract writing, research project proposals and ethics applications
- Participate in a presentation evening, where students can speak about research they have been involved in a relaxed and informal atmosphere
- Introduce speaker at public lectures and offer the vote of thanks
- Participate in peer assisted study sessions, such as ACU’s PASS
- Consider other community engagement activities that ACU offers and promotes.
(Sources: ACER, Broadening staff involvement in student learning, n.d.; McLean et al, 2013; Edwards, 2011.)
Students’ feelings of support within the university community
Educators can help enhance postgraduate students’ feelings of support and belonging at ACU both through their teaching and also by linking students with wider ACU resources.
Strategies for creating a sense of support
- Start of semester. Design an activity with the aim of getting to know more about your students and for them to learn more about each other.
- Intensive on-campus workshops at the start of the course or unit. On a practical level such intensive days can help orientate students to their course/unit and include assistance with any technologies that will be used. Additionally, intensive days can help initiate student-student and staff-student connections which can help support them during their studies (Edwards, 2011).
- Team work. Encourage postgraduate students to form study groups or pairs, sharing the reading load and working through materials together (Edwards, 2011).
- Work, family and other commitments. Be sympathetic to the impact of postgraduate students’ work and family commitments upon their postgraduate studies and respond with flexible options.
- Interaction. Consider the various ways you can increase the interaction between you and your students in both formal and informal settings, inside and outside the classroom. Interaction between educators and students leads to students feeling a greater sense of belonging to the institution and of being supported (Richards, 2011). Refer to the Staff Student Interaction tab.
- Model collaboration. Model supportive and collaborative behaviours during group discussions either online or face to face
- Foster ‘social presence’ in online units. Social presence is the degree to which participants in online environments feel actively connected to one another. Social Presence is one of three key elements outlined in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, which is a conceptual model describing the processes that support learning in an online environment. You can learn more about the CoI framework in the Teaching Online program, available to all ACU staff.
ACU case study - Field exercise
Dr Helen Webb, Associate Professor, School of Nursing, Midwifery & Paramedicine.
Digger’s Trail Wilderness Experience (DTWE) is a field exercise for ACU Paramedicine students. DTWE is a voluntary activity, separate from the curriculum, in which students can participate.
Students are introduced to new skills and knowledge in navigation, wilderness response and search and rescue. The setting for the exercise is the Wombat State Forest in rural Victoria. During this event students are given a six-figure grid reference and as a team they must find the location on a map and develop strategies to navigate through a wilderness setting to locate the patient and assess, treat and extricate the patient to base-camp. The students extricate the patient by carrying them on a spine board over 3 km which emphasises communication, teamwork and leadership. During one phase of the exercise students navigate through the bush using only a compass bearing. The case scenarios are developed from actual cases attended by paramedics.
The outcomes for students include being able to implement skills they have already learned, but in an unfamiliar environment. They also acquire new skills in navigation, search and rescue and wilderness response.
Note: While the Exercise Digger’s Trail is primarily for third year undergraduate Paramedicine students, the field exercise concept can be applied at the postgraduate level.
ACU case study - Using LEO Live Classroom to increase staff and student interaction
Dr Val Goodwin, Deputy Head of School, School of Nursing, Midwifery & Paramedicine
In NRSG655, a postgraduate unit in mental health nursing, we have used the LEO Live Classroom tool in two slightly different approaches in order to increase opportunities for staff and students to interact in ways that directly contribute to student learning and educational outcomes.
Scheduled online live classroom sessions
The first way we used LEO Live Classroom was via a series of scheduled webinars, for which students are required to complete some pre-reading so they come prepared for the discussion.
Scheduling for flexibility
The scheduled webinars are each offered a minimum of three times during the teaching week, including an a.m., p.m. and a weekend option, in order to respond flexibly to the high proportion of the student cohort that are employed.
During the webinar, the students respond to questions posed by the lecturer and each other, in what usually becomes a thorough analysis of the issues via a lively discussion. In this instance, because attendance at a webinar was a requirement, the transcripts and recording were made available only to the attendees at each session.
For a subsequent piece of assessment, the students must write up a discussion of the key issues from two selected webinars in the series.
In general, feedback from students has been positive, with many saying that they greatly appreciated both the flexible timing of the scheduled webinars and the fact that they are recorded and made available. Students also report a deeper understanding of the discipline issues discussed in the sessions.
Virtual drop-in sessions
The second way we used LEO Live Classroom was via “virtual drop-in” sessions. Rather than traditional contact hours via telephone or face-to-face consultation, the virtual sessions are offered three times a week (a.m., p.m. and weekend) and involved the lecturer being available in the live classroom for ad hoc questions or discussions about the unit content or assessments. Students can simply turn up and pose any questions they wish related to the unit.
These sessions were most used by students at the beginning and end of the semester.
Feedback from students has been an increased level of confidence with the technology used in the unit, along with a better understanding of the assessment tasks.
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